The Year in Review: Out of the Box

Two pairs of college students endure a pimple-producing, anxiety-ridden 24-hour study session for a reality-style program that premieres next month on the Game Show Network. Sequestered in two glass rooms outfitted with cameras, the teams hunker down with material ranging from newsmagazines to a riddle book—and the owners manual for Saturn’s new vehicle, the Ion.

As the official car sponsor of Cram, the Ion will be used to shuttle contestants between the studio and the study chambers in the opening and closing sequences of each episode. The high scorers on the test—which includes questions about the owners manual—win $10,000 and, of course, an Ion.

The small-car line is targeted at 18-34-year-olds, a group that’s increasingly tough for marketers to reach, says Matt Armstrong, Ion marketing manager. Though the launch is supported by an estimated $30-50 million ad campaign from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, alliances with the game show and with CBS’ Survivor are “a more subtle way of introducing the vehicle. It’s not a hard sell,” says Armstrong. “Product placement helps reinforce the message that we are conveying in our traditional advertising.”

Weaving brand messages into entertainment is, of course, as old as television itself. Several decades ago, it wasn’t unusual for the star of a show to turn to the camera for a “word from our sponsor.” But eventually the commercial was expected to do all the heavy lifting for a brand, and a powerful spot like Apple’s “1984,” coupled with a top-dollar media buy like the Super Bowl, had the power to make or break the buzz for a client.

In today’s marketplace, it simply isn’t enough. For the last few years, advertisers have bemoaned viewer fragmentation and recording technologies that threaten to make the commercial, as well as TV schedules, obsolete. In 2002 they started doing something about it, experimenting with mini-movies, music videos and many varieties of tie-ins, all in the hopes of hitting on new entry points to the consumer’s attention.

As Mitch Kanner, CEO of the Idea Bridge in Santa Monica, Calif., puts it: “If attention is the scarce commodity of the 21st century—if the consumer has a choice and elects to use it—what will the advertising industry do?”

The new approaches are an evolution of advertising, but also a return to the past. When Kiefer Sutherland of Fox’s espionage series 24 took time from the show’s season premiere in October to thank Ford for its sponsorship, it seemed that advertising’s new era could have more in common with the early days of television than the heyday of the 30-second spot. At a price of $1 million-plus, Ford not only provided the Expedition SUV that Sutherland’s character drives but was the show’s sole sponsor, allowing the episode to run uninterrupted by commercial breaks.

One of the quirkier examples of old-time methods meeting new thinking is Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners’ Meow TV, a pilot in development for client Meow Mix that’s aimed at cats and their owners (segments include Squirrel Alert, Catnip Psych Out and Cat Yoga). “Much like the 1950s, when advertisers sponsored shows, this will be Meow Mix’s signature show,” says co-chairman and chief creative officer Richard Kirshenbaum.

It’s just another way for consumers to bond with Meow Mix, notes Kirshenbaum. “Everyone is talking about the merger of entertainment and advertising—this is a perfect example,” he says.

The most common example this year was the type of partnership formed by American Idol and sponsors such as Coca-Cola. Coke got as much out of Fox’s smash talent show as winner Kelly Clarkson, and maybe more. Beyond the commercial breaks, the brand made its presence felt everywhere from the green-room-turned-“Coca-Cola Red Room,” where judges and contestants drank the soda, to the prerecorded “Coca-Cola Moments.” Coke reportedly paid less than $10 million to sponsor the show; Fox is now asking new sponsors for $26 million.

When content is well suited to a product, advertising can be powerfully amplified through a show sponsorship, says Steve Flanders, president of Icon Entertainment@JWT. WPP’s J. Walter Thompson launched the unit in September to focus on alliances with entertainment providers. Flanders points to JWT’s involvement last February with the WB’s No Boun daries eco-challenge show, which featured the Ford Explorer. The Explorer, in turn, used “No boundaries” as a tagline. (In the end, ratings were low and the WB pulled the series.)

MGM’s latest James Bond film, Die Another Day, premiered with more than 20 brands attached as sponsors, including Ford and Revlon. “The brilliance about how MGM marketed that film was that it wasn’t just about their noise, it was about noise [from] the other marketers. To do that alone would have been very expensive,” notes Flanders. “Each helped the other. It’s either about other people’s money or other people’s noise, and both are pretty good.”

While content providers and brands learn to leverage each other’s strengths, agencies are extending the traditional spot into an entertainment vehicle. Inspired by BMW Films’ breakthrough Internet shorts from Fallon, several marketers tried longer formats this year. Among them were Budweiser and agency DDB, which produced “Best Man,” a seven-minute short that expanded on the “True” television campaign. It’s available on Kevin Spacey’s new Internet-film showcase, Trigger, with which Bud weiser has a sponsorship deal.

Nissan put out a CD-ROM last spring that featured a Japanese anime-style film showcasing the Sentra SE-R Spec V, and more recently, a short Internet film promoting the 350Z was teased in theaters with a two-minute trailer. Directed by special-effects pro John Bruno and created by The Designory in Long Beach, Calif., the film takes a driver’s point of view as the car races around Prague.

“You need more weapons in your media arsenal,” says Rob Schwartz, executive creative director at Nissan shop TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif. “These branded pieces are just new opportunities to connect to people.”

The imitators are taking note of BMW and Fallon’s claim that 14 million people watched last year’s films. Fallon president and creative director David Lubars says the series was born out of a practical need more than an interest in making a bold creative statement. “It had nothing to do with being cool or being different. It had everything to do with the fact that there are groups of consumers that avoid you,” he says. “We had to reverse the polarity and get them to reach us.”

BMW Films was excluded from entering the film category at Cannes this year, but won the Grand Prix in the Cyber competition. The films were difficult to categorize: Are they commercials? And if so, are they good commercials? It is a question that comes up often when discussing the merger of commerce and content.

“The question is, What function does it serve?” says Hal Curtis, creative director on Nike at Wie den + Kennedy in Portland, Ore. “It has to find a way to have a function that helps the brand. That’s always the challenge.” Under the banner of Wieden + Kennedy En tertainment, the shop has produced a documentary on Lance Armstrong, Road to Paris, and a Winter Games TV special, and has been developing a Broadway musical for Nike.

Eric Hirshberg, executive creative director and managing partner of Deutsch/LA in Marina del Rey, Calif., cautions agencies against rushing headlong into nontraditional ventures. “The anticipation of the need for a wider creative palette is a bit ahead of the actual need,” he notes.

That said, this year Hirshberg’s agency was part of a trend that saw the blurring of lines between music video and commercial. A Deutsch spot for Mitsubishi doubled as the U.S. introduction of British band Dirty Vegas. The group timed its U.S. release to the spot’s debut, and the car was heavily featured in the band’s video. Pepsi traded screen time with Interscope artist Sev in spots from BBDO New York for PepsiBlue. And Boston agency Modernista! collaborated with rap artist/producer Timbaland to make a video for “Ching Ching Ching,” by Miss Jade, that features the Hummer H2.

Miss Jade’s video was also cut into spots that bear no H2 tag or logo, making for commercials that don’t look much like a commercial. Perhaps ironically, the 30-second spot, long heralded to be on its deathbed, has largely benefited from the new interest in alternative forms of advertising.

“People are doing commercials that are interesting again,” notes Jeff Goodby, co-chairman and creative director of Goodby. “People have to make commercials that people want to watch. The vast majority of commercials are intrusive—they work because they get stuck in your head in a nasty, obnoxious way. That’s not going to be true anymore. People are going to have to like it.”

“It feels like it’s all about ideas again,” adds Jamie Barrett, a creative director at Goodby. “Apply where appropriate.”

Some view the new “advertainment” as a natural evolution of the commercial, others as an overhyped element of a shift in the industry that may prove as fleeting as the dot-com boom. What’s certain is that while the 30-second spot is not about to disappear, marketers will need to broaden their efforts in the ever more competitive environment.

“I have never been more cognizant on a daily basis of the importance of our advertising performing and specifically selling cars,” says Barrett, who leads creative for Saturn. “Whether we think of a sponsorship with Survivor or being a title sponsor for an interesting game show, all those things are critical in our minds. Some of those efforts will generate results, but not advertising alone.”